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Best Practices from a Worst-Case Scenario

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The firing of Don Imus was, for all intents and purposes, a product recall—and the defective product in question was called "shock jock."

Products are recalled when consumers have lost faith (a.k.a. trust) or when they are simply not viable—when they can't be defended or fixed up enough to assure an angry, injured, unforgiving public. The controversy over the Rutgers women's basketball team tested and surpassed the limits of acceptable free speech because there were suddenly concrete victims—sympathetic, dignified, and injured young women—rather than abstract targets (e.g., the prototypical liberal, the stereotypical minority activist, etc.).

People love to attack faceless prototypes. But actually causing human pain...well, that's going too far.

By overstepping this critical boundary, Imus put himself and his corporate fathers in an untenable situation. Every recovery strategy that is normally utilized in such situations—recantation, apology, gestures of goodwill—would starkly contrast with everything that he'd been saying and doing for 30 years. Once you apologize for doing what shock jocks are paid to do, you can never be a shock jock again.

Beyond Imus, shock-jockism itself has been undermined. The appeal of this "product" is the sense of limitlessness it imparts-the sense that anything can be said and that anything can happen. That is the promise of the brand (and, by definition, a brand in any kind of business is itself a promise). Now the world knows that promise cannot be kept, at least not if a major network is involved.

With the product itself under fire, CBS (and presumably other media giants, as well) has made a fundamental decision to redefine its programming altogether. Less than two weeks after firing Imus, CBS Radio suspended two New York radio-show hosts who broadcast prank calls targeting Chinese restaurant workers.

Pre-Imus, I doubt these guys would have gotten into trouble.

To be sure, the Imus event was a nonpareil recall of a unique product line. That said, product recalls of any sort are proving grounds for PR strategies and tactics in diverse possible crises. It could be an accounting scandal or tainted food, a high-visibility contract dispute, or a chemical spill. We have certainly seen over the years how major corporations face their own problems with racism or similar human resources abuses among their managerial ranks.

Predictably, the Imus recall should therefore provide widely applicable lessons for businesses confronted in their own markets with similar do-or-die circumstances.

  • Understand that, in the Internet age, audios and videos are played and replayed at warp speed. Waiting 24 hours to see how a matter will evolve is sometimes smart but more often fatal. With racism and sexism thrown into the mix, some sort of immediate response is compulsory. In the Imus matter, the network first opted for a two-week wait-and-see period. Within a day or two, that option was clearly impracticable, and an immediate decision needed to be made.

  • When the brand is divided (e.g., with the networks speaking in one voice with their own priorities and Imus on the other side pondering his personal future), a sacrifice must sometimes be made. Sometimes the sacrifice takes weeks to make, as when presidents let errant cabinet members or White House staffers hang slowly in public. Again, with Imus, the flood of media coverage forced a faster decision.

  • As we suggested above, simple contrition may not be enough when there are powerful victims in the spotlight. If there is an action to take, it will speak louder than any public apology or expression of regret. What may CBS still do to make it up to its minority customers without looking as if it's trying to buy a way out of the crisis?

  • Control the blogosphere. All industries in the current environment are at least potentially affected by bloggers. The blogosphere is both global and local. It affected the outcome of the Imus case on a national level, and it also affects customer perceptions in much narrower industries. Develop a list of the "high-authority" bloggers in your industry area, and, as appropriate, begin friendly relations now—while they're still friendly.
Finally, most businesses have an option that CBS did not have. In anticipation of a problem, remember that the same initiatives that are good for business during the best of times likewise support brand preservation in times of crisis. Unambiguous company policies go a long way in the Court of Public Opinion to dissociate a company from any loose cannons in its midst.

CBS, of course, was forced to dance a different step. Having broadcast Imus' abuses for decades, the company could not cleanly disassociate itself. The network is generally perceived as having been reactive to public and advertiser pressures, and its actions may be interpreted as purely expedient.

The good news for the network is that no one is likely surprised by that or expected otherwise.

About the Author:

Richard S. Levick, Esq., President and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, protects brands and reputations during the highest-stakes global crises and litigation. Honored as Crisis Agency of the Year by the Holmes Report in 2005, the firm wins the communications wars with comprehensive campaigns on behalf of clients targeted by regulators, embroiled in litigation, or confronted by grassroots movements. He was recently named to the PR News Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement. Find a comprehensive arsenal of vital communications tools at—including books, newsletters, and helpful articles.
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